The long straight drive along the Harbor Canal suddenly makes a little jog left and I careen around a trailer park -- a sign, at least, that people DO live here. And then, before you know it, a double smokestack on a paddle-wheeler appears to the right and the Boomtown Casino looms into view.
Appearances notwithstanding, I've actually arrived in the historical stomping grounds of Louisiana gambling. In the 1940s, nearby Gretna had six lavish supper-club casinos, including the famous Beverly Country Club where Governor Long liked to hang out. Those places faded away by the 1960s, when Louisiana politicians had a brief flirtation with legality, and the "Westbank" of the Mississippi River -- which is actually the south bank, since the river flows straight east and west here - returned to more mundane matters, like selling oil-drilling equipment to the rest of the world.
If you're a Westbanker -- bred to the bayous of Houma, or Thibodaux, or Des Allemands -- then you try to avoid traveling over The Bridge. The Bridge leads to New Orleans, which is 20 minutes and a world away. We're in blue-collar crawdaddy country here, and everybody wants it to stay that way. Boomtown is the only casino on the Westbank, so that's where Westbankers gamble.
In the poker room, to give an example, they have a 94-year-old local who plays every day -- and as everyone in the room will tell you, "He doesn't even need eye glasses."
It's a homey little place, despite the Old West facade of false fronts that greet you at the porte-cochere.
"We were real cowboy when we opened up in 1994," says Charlie Frederick, the marketing manager, "but we're not big on that anymore. We don't really have a theme, just casual contemporary."
Boomtown Casino discovered what regional casinos have found out all across the country: themes only work in Vegas. Casinos that cater to locals are better off looking like a mall, or at most a T.G.I. Friday's -- because, if you come here once a week or more, any theme is going to eventually upset you. You can handle DisneyWorld once a year, but if you had to go there every day, you'd know what I mean.
The Boomtown riverboat doesn't actually leave the dock.
Eighteen months ago, the Louisiana legislature eliminated the law requiring gambling boats to cruise (as did legislatures in Indiana and Illinois). The result in almost every casino was a steep increase in business -- except at Boomtown.
"We notice no real difference between the number of people before and after the passage of dockside gambling," says Frederick. Because the 180,000 monthly customers are all . . .Westbankers! They'd gamble here even if it were built on a Jet-Ski.
Boomtown is an average-sized boat with four decks, vintage purple-and-gold lone star carpet, and the usual assortment of table games and slots. They have two Mini-Baccarat tables that get pretty rowdy when the local Asian population arrives on weekends, and they have a VIP area called the Pinnacle Room that offers slot machines of $5 denominations and up, blackjack starting at $25.
At the other extreme they have penny games. Yes, I said pennies. Not only that, they have REAL nickel slots. Most casinos advertise nickel slots, but to hit jackpots on them, you have to bet combinations that end up being 45 coins per pull. Boomtown has three-across nickel slots, meaning you can indulge and qualify for the largest payoff for 15 cents a pop.
The third deck used to be for entertainment -- including wild boxing matches -- but it's lately been converted to slots, and all the shows have been moved to Boomer's night club, which is part of the land-based facility and seats 550 for country acts like Merle Haggard, Sammy Kershaw (who qualifies as a local, being from Lafayette), and Brenda Lee. They generally do two shows in a single night once a month, with the early seating for premium players only and the second show open to the general public.
It's a sleepy little place, to tell you the truth, and a far cry from what we normally think of us as New Orleans-style Mississippi River gambling. After all, this is where all the French games were introduced to America in the 1820s -- poker, roulette, faro -- and where they were shipped upriver for the corruption of the masses.
The only thing that's really Louisianan about it is the
Bayou Market Buffet, where you can get boudin, crawfish and gumbo, and the raw oyster bar upstairs at the Pier 4 bar and restaurant. (I never cease to be amazed at how cheap raw oysters are in Louisiana. Eat 60 and don't worry about it.) There's also a little po-boy shop called Bayou Market Express where the walls are lined with festival posters. (Southern Louisiana has a festival every day of the year.)
Boomtown is part of the Pinnacle chain of casinos, which traces its corporate lineage back to Verdi, Nevada, outside Reno, where a waitress named Effie Holmes and a traveling salesman named Ray Holmes bought the Wishing Well Cafe in the 1950s and turned it into a truck stop with 17 slot machines. Ray and Effie's Truck Stop eventually became Bill & Effie's Truck Stop when Effie got divorced and remarried, but by the late '60s they had 120 seats in their thriving restaurant, 94 slot machines and two pumps -- enough to sell out to Bob Caskell for $1 million.
His group renamed the truck stop Boomtown in 1970, converted it to a full-scale casino, and built the first hotel in Verdi in 1978. By 1992 Boomtown was listed on NASDAQ, and by 1997 it was big enough to merge with Hollywood Park racetrack and become Pinnacle Entertainment.
There are five other Pinnacle casinos, in Mississippi, Louisiana, Indiana and Nevada. If you're thinking about stopping by, don't be intimidated by the oilfield equipment or the local atmosphere. They have a spacious new boat that they bought in a fire sale when the River City Casino in New Orleans went out of business in 1997, and they have two festivals of their own each year -- the Oil Field Chili Cookoff in the spring, and Boomfest on the Fourth of July.
If anybody asks if you're a Westbanker, the correct answer is "All my life." They'll love you.
4132 Peters Rd., Harvey, La.
Theme: Bennigan's on a Boat, with Rustic Touches
Total investment: $110 million
Known for: Westbank Cajun Pride
Marketing niche: Locals in the bayou country west of New Orleans
Gambler's Intensity: Low
Cocktail speed: Slow
Dealers: Friendly natives
Bosses: All but invisible
Rare games: Spanish 21 is as rare as it gets.
Surrounding area: Think of the world's biggest auto parts supply store, now turn that into oil field equipment.
Web site: boomtownneworleans.com
Overall rating: 73
Joe Bob's bankroll: Down $74 after a desultory hour of mini-baccarat: total to date +$326
(E-mail Joe Bob Briggs, "The Vegas Guy," at JoeBob@upi.com or visit Joe Bob's Web site at www.joebobbriggs.com. Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas, 75221.)